Why would Middle East leaders, including key US’ allies, hesitate to join Obama’s anti-ISIS coalition? Radio VR discussed it with Dr.Dan Tschirgi, Professor of Political Science with The American University in Cairo, and Alexander Kuznetsov, vice-president of the Geo-Arabica Center in the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies in Moscow.
Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Egypt, as well as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain to discuss U.S. plans to counter ISIS. According to New York Times reporting, the Obama administration has said several Arab nations have agreed to join the coalition against ISIS. But the degree of commitment still seems unclear, the paper says.
Egypt is certainly one of the key players that could make a difference. Yet, the US Secretary of State visit to Egypt, the most populous Arab country has hardly resulted in more than polite statements from the Sisi government. John Kerry’s sweet talk seems to have failed, too.
"As an intellectual and cultural capital in the Muslim world, Egypt has a critical role to play in publicly denouncing the ideology that IS disseminates," he asserted. In his turn Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri said Egypt would be taking honest and credible steps in the collective fight against terrorism.
What kind of commitment is that?
Says Dr. Dan Tschirgi, Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science at The American University in Cairo:
“As far as I understand it, the purpose of the visit was very clearly part of the overall effort that Mr. Kerry had been making during the past week, to enlist the local support for a coalition to battle ISIS or ISIL – the Islamist terrorist group. And the outcome was more or less predictable. Egypt has been having some very serious concerns about its own interest in the light of the terrorist threat that is presented by ISIS. Just within the past week there have been several reports of items that seemed to indicate, as one newspaper said – that ISIS has Egypt in its sight for the immediate future. And Kerry’s visit coincided more or less with an upswing in the public concern, as to what all of that might mean.
Therefore, the outcome was, from Kerry’s viewpoint, essentially positive. He did not get any sort of iron-clad commitment for a specific action. But he did receive a lot of sympathy for the American position and a lot of indications that Egypt was considering and would not be averse to taking action against ISIS, if the occasion arose.
But the US has been rather critical of the Egyptian Government for its handling of the Muslim Brotherhood issue. And now, one of the MB leaders has got life sentence. So, do you see the US position changing?
Dr. Dan Tschirgi: The way I see it, I think the balance of diplomatic power has shifted in favor of Egypt at this point. As we know, the Obama administration went through a period of really antagonizing the Egyptian Government for its handling of its own MB threat. The situation has changed at this point, given the diplomatic leverage, I think, to Cairo in terms of its relations with the US.
In other words, I do not see the US pursuing strongly, or even at all, its erstwhile policy of sympathizing with the MB. And I think that Washington is going to back off decidedly from that point of view. And I expect Egypt to capitalize at this time on its own role in the ME. Egypt has a lot to offer in terms in terms of soft power, its influence against the lunacy of the ISIS sort of threat in Syria and in Iraq. And Egypt is the seat of al-Azhar, it has a lot of influence in the Muslim world.
And it can speak out and discredit ISIS and that sort of trend. And I suspect they will do so, but they will do so at a price. They are not going to do so without insisting that the US turn down or abandon, probably both, its support for the MB. So, the outcome, in this immediate sense, I would expect to be in Egypt’s favor."
As an expert, what would you say, could be the best strategy in countering the IS threat?
Dr. Dan Tschirgi: You are asking a question that would challenge Solomon and his wisdom. I don’t know what the solution is, how to deal with this immediate threat of ISIS. The Arab world as a whole is suffering from the developments that have produced and sustained the ISIS-like mentality.
And it is an Arab problem. The solution must come from within the Arab world. It cannot be solved quickly. It is a deeply-deeply-deeply cultural problem not just in any given part of the Arab world, but throughout the Arab world, and it has deep historical roots.
All of that is not to say that it is a long-term problem that cannot be dealt with by the West. In terms of rather short-term policies they can and they (the West) will attempt to implement short-term policies to mitigate as much as possible the immediate problem of ISIS, which developed over the summer, as you know, in Iraq and in Syria, and crested very rapidly.
I think the West has opted for, under the American leadership, a sort of short-term solution. But their aim is – mitigating the problem. The solution to the problem is something that must come from the society of this region itself. It will take years, it will involve, at a minimum, a sea-change in a cultural sense.
There are the reports now to the effect that ISIS’s summer offensive – if we want to call it that – increased by a factor of five or six its membership, just over the summer. I don’t know how true that is. I don’t think anybody really knows, but the very fact that it can be broached as a possibility signifies, I think, the validity of what I'm arguing, which is that the real roots of this crisis are deeply cultural in the Arab society. And it will take a sort of cultural sea-change – if I can put it that way – to eventually resolve this problem.
And, as I said, that doesn’t detract from the possible effectiveness of the sort of military confrontational strategy that Washington seems to have opted for. And we’ve not seen any result of its talk yet, but the way it is being spoken of, the coalition that Kerry was trying to mobilize during his week-long visit to this region are the signs that it is coming. And I presume it will manifest itself in the coming weeks or months in clear actions of the military nature. But they will only be a sort of stopgap measure”.
So, how good are the chances that military confrontation strategy would work at least in the short-term perspective? And how good are the chances that the US ultimately succeeds in drawing an international coalition to fight the ISIS?
Says Alexander Kuznetsov, vice-president of the Geo-Arabica Center in the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies:
The main goal of John Kerry’s trip was to build up a coalition of the Middle Eastern countries against the ISIS, because the American airstrikes are not sufficient to defeat this extremist group. And, of course, America needs the so-called boots on the ground to defeat the ISIS.
I think that the Arab countries of the Gulf, the American allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Kuwait and others wouldn’t like to form some troops and send them to fight the ISIS on the round, because if they wage a war against the Sunnis, it will be harmful for their reputation.
It will not work because of a number of reasons. First of all, the main potential American ally to defeat the ISIS is the legitimate Government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But, as President Obama and some American officials said, the American strategy has two issues: first of all, to confront the ISIS and to support the so-called Syrian moderate opposition, which will confront both – the ISIS and the Syrian Government.
It is impossible, because we now don’t have a moderate military Syrian opposition. All the Syrian oppositional military groups are the Islamists and they cooperated with the ISIS in the past, but now they confront the ISIS, because it is a threat to their existence. And, of course, without the cooperation with the Syrian Government, it will be very complicated.
And the second is that the Gulf countries, especially Qatar, also supported such groups as the ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other. Saudi Arabia also supported the jihadists, but now it changed its position because the ISIS threatens Saudi Arabia, too. But, of course, the Saudi Government and King Abdullah will be very cautious in confronting the ISIS, I think.
What kind of development do you foresee regarding ISIS and what kind of role could Egypt with its current Government play in this situation?
Alexander Kuznetsov: I think that Egypt has many problems of its own in the domestic policy, and also economic problems. So, unfortunately, Egypt now cannot play an active role in the Middle Eastern policy, because of its internal challenges.
Perhaps, Egypt can provide some military assistance via the airstrikes and by sending the Egyptian officers to the northern Iraq, but I don’t think that the sizeable Egyptian troops will be sent to the region, to the north of Iraq.
And in the future, the kind of forecast that I can make, is that this war will be, of course, a long-term war. It will be a long-term conflict, because we can defeat ISIS – this very extremist group. It can make some horrors, but it cannot govern these areas of the northern Iraq or northern Syria. But without the involvement of the Iraqi Sunni population, of the Sunni tribes, we cannot bring the reconciliation to this region, I think. And it is the lack of trust of the Iraqi Sunnis towards the contemporary Iraqi Government in Baghdad, and towards the Americans also.
So, do I get it right that more military strikes by the Western powers would only make things worse?
Alexander Kuznetsov: Of course, you are right, because without the Syrian Government’s approval any strike will be considered as an act of aggression against Syria, first of all. And secondly, the Americans in the northern Iraq, in the Anbar province, which is now under the ISIS control, in the nearest past, in 2004 they launched airstrikes and shelled the positions of Islamist extremists. But doing that they also hit Iraqi civilians, they killed many Iraqis.
So, now it will be considered as a threat and as an aggression against the whole Sunni world, I think. And it is a vicious circle, yes.